News & Politics » Miscellany

But She Was A Cheerleader

How Evanston's Mimi Chesterton became Claudia Jennings, B-Movie Queen: The short, fast life of an American beauty.

by

1 comment

I read the news today oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
He blew his mind out in a car...

In the summer of 1967, when I and most of my schoolmates from Evanston Township High School were absorbed in dissecting the Beatles' lyrics on the newly released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, two fellow members of the class of '68 were busy making a movie. Shot in Super-8 for little more than the cost of film stock and developing, it was a silent, plotless visual poem about a winsome, enigmatic flower child who brushes past and occasionally interacts with other young people but ultimately remains unattainable and isolated. It's so dreamy she might be a projection of the other characters' fantasies, or perhaps they're her hallucination. This raw yet evocative apprentice work simmering with adolescent eroticism was an ode by its director, Todd McCarthy, to the exquisite, innocent, highly photogenic beauty of its "star"--Mary Eileen Chesterton, whose nickname, Mimi, gave the film its title.

Both McCarthy and Chesterton ended up in full-fledged careers in the movie business. McCarthy is a critic, historian, and occasional filmmaker. His directing credits include two documentaries about the movies, Visions of Light and Forever Hollywood; he's also chief film critic for Variety, author of a biography of Howard Hawks, and coeditor of an anthology of essays about low-budget moviemakers called Kings of the Bs.

Mimi, meanwhile, became known as the "Queen of the Bs." She changed her name to Claudia Jennings--in part so as not to embarrass her family and in part, according to retired ETHS drama teacher Bill Ditton, because she thought "Mimi" sounded too girlish--and debuted her saucy, sensual new persona in a November 1969 Playboy centerfold (she was later voted Playmate of the Year). She'd gone to work at the magazine as a receptionist but quickly caught the eye of publisher Hugh Hefner and photographer Pompeo Posar.

From those bare-all beginnings she went on to achieve a certain cult status with her often scantily clad, sometimes nude appearances in a string of lurid exploitation flicks, among them producer Roger Corman's raunchy Roller Derby flick Unholy Rollers, Gator Bait, Group Marriage, and Deathsport, Corman's sequel to Death Race 2000 ("Not as campy or enjoyable as the earlier film, though Claudia unclothed is a visual asset," smirks the capsule review in Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide). She also popped up occasionally in small parts in more legitimate fare, including the glossy showbiz melodrama The Love Machine and the science-fantasy classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, as well as in guest spots on such TV shows as The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, and The Brady Bunch. But her fame rested on her status as a diva of the drive-ins, a siren of 70s sleaze.

No one can say what path Mimi's career might have taken as she grew older. "I figure I'll come into my own when I'm about 30," she once said in a Playboy interview. She might have made a crossover to mainstream success. She might have parlayed her sex-kitten image into a serious acting career. She might have ended up doing public-service spots for starving children or commercials for beauty products or hormone boosters. She might have become an agent or producer. Or she might have just chucked the whole Hollywood thing and returned to Evanston to open up a school for stagestruck kids.

One can only speculate. On the morning of October 2, 1979, driving a silver Volkswagen convertible, she crossed the dividing line on the two-lane Pacific Coast Highway and plowed into a pickup truck. The driver of the truck escaped with minor injuries, but Mimi died in the crash--not immediately, but in the arms of the rescue worker who pulled her from the wreckage. She was 29.

I thought of Mimi last spring, during the controversy over designating part of Walton Street as Honorary Hugh Hefner Way. Then in June my friends and I learned that she was to be the subject of a documentary on E! Entertainment Television. The news came from Todd McCarthy, the only person from Mimi's high school days who was interviewed by the E! production crew.

Premiering Sunday, September 24, at 8 PM as part of E!'s "True Hollywood Story" series, the show was suggested to the network by one Keith Jennings, who had known Mimi in Hollywood when she was in her early 20s and he was about 12. (He was so enraptured by her that he took her new last name as his own.) "We get lots and lots of letters proposing story ideas," says the show's producer, Charla Smith. "This one made sense. Playmate, B-movie actress, died a young, tragic death--it's the kind of thing we do."

Indeed, Fast Life/Untimely Death: Playmate Claudia Jennings is a cautionary tale about "the lure of Hollywood and the fate of those who get mesmerized," in the words of the narrator--who also notes that "like the oft-repeated Hollywood cliche, she lived fast and died young." But after this sensational introduction, the show isn't bad for tabloid TV. Brisk, straightforward, picture-packed, it chronicles Mimi's unsatisfying movie career and turbulent personal life in Hollywood. Among the many clips from Mimi's movies is her screen debut in McCarthy's Mimi. With its eloquent footage of her drifting through Wilmette's Gillson Park, her long red hair complemented by lush green trees and the green shift she's wearing, it may be the only film to capture her sensual yet vulnerable essence. The interviewees include Deathsport costar David Carradine, Roger Corman, Sally Kirkland, and Barry Williams of The Brady Bunch.

Also interviewed is Hefner, who recalls: "She said I was the first man that she ever made love to....I have no idea whether it was true or not." (It wasn't--though Mimi wasn't promiscuous, neither was she a virgin by her senior year.) The show recounts Mimi's flings with Warren Beatty, Ron Wood, and Keith Richards and her brief live-in relationship with David Bowie, as well as her long-term affair with Bobby Hart (who helped write the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville") and later involvements with cinematographer Gary Graver and Beverly Hills real estate executive Stan Herman, the last man in her life. It dwells on her overindulgence in cocaine, sex, and partying. (Not that you had to be a starlet to get sucked into all that in the freewheeling 70s.) And it juggles contradictory assessments of her personality to suggest--I think accurately--that she was a conflicted person torn between self-sufficient sex goddess "Claudia Jennings" and eager-to-please, slightly insecure Mimi Chesterton.

"I was troubled by [the documentary]," says Dave Jones, a Reader staffer and ETHS alum who dated Mimi during her senior year, when he was home on breaks from college. "I thought it was rather fatuous...until I realized how clearly it delineated the difference between sacrificial lamb and temple whore. Mimi came so very close to knowing what she was doing. She was like Salome dancing with the seven veils--except she shed her veils much too quickly."

The documentary does convey that Mimi was a smart, sweet, down-to-earth person, defying the stereotype of the brainless, self-absorbed beauty queen. She was a cheerleader--but also a National Merit Scholar. She dated college men but was approachable by tongue-tied schoolboys; she was equally friendly to nerds and jocks, academic overachievers and drug dealers, the in crowd and the outcasts. She was one of the nicest kids I knew.

What the E! documentary lacks, unfortunately, is any sense of Mimi's life in Evanston. That's because her family refused to cooperate. Over the years they've chosen not to help perpetuate the mystique of Claudia Jennings, guarding their privacy and their personal memories of Mimi. "Her mother has never done any interviews," says producer Smith. "We approached her and she said, 'Send me a couple of your shows' as samples. I did, and she felt they were too tabloidish. Her family is adamantly against any publicity. Out of respect for them, I wasn't going to go knocking on doors in her hometown." Smith says she was also shy of the possibilities of a lawsuit.

Joan Chesterton, a retired college teacher now widowed and living in Indiana, did talk to me, however. "[Smith] sent me a tape, and it was one of the smarmiest things I've ever seen," says Chesterton. "It showed some child actress dead on the floor of drugs. The only reaction you could have conceivably had was 'yuck.' My feeling has been there has been little interest in my daughter as a person and much interest in her as a Playmate, God save us all. We had a daughter who was just such a straight arrow until she wound up with Playboy. It was too much for an 18-year-old."

Chesterton will probably find the E! documentary painful if she chooses to watch it, especially the final eulogy to Mimi--a seemingly poignant "I miss her" uttered by Hugh Hefner. But it seems Chesterton would concur with the show's conclusion that in the months before her death Mimi was working to turn her life around--to get off drugs, to break away from destructive relationships, to put the Playboy and B-movie-queen image behind her and get serious about her acting. "I think in the last year of her life she was questioning a tremendous amount of what had occurred," Chesterton says.

I'd love to turn you on...

The Chestertons arrived in Evanston at the start of Mimi's sophomore year, moving there from Richmond, Indiana, so her father could take a job as advertising director for Skilsaw. "Richmond was a small town," says Joan Chesterton. "She had been very successful there--she was a class officer, had lots of friends." Just as her beauty was beginning to blossom, Mimi became a newcomer in a huge school of more than 4,000 kids. "When I took her to registration the first day, we had to walk across this giant stadium floor. She was pretty, and all kinds of uncomfortable comments were coming at her--wolf whistles and such. She turned around and looked at me with tears in her eyes. It was frightening for her. I felt so sorry for her." In a tone of grim determination, Chesterton adds, "I said to myself then, we're never making another corporate move."

But Mimi squared her shoulders and went about her business, not only enduring the curious stares and lecherous leers but making a place for herself in her new school. "As far as I can tell, she mostly made other people's lives pleasant," says New York-based playwright Jeffrey Sweet, a 1967 graduate of ETHS. "She always struck me as very confident of herself, not snooty to anyone," adds another ETHS alum, James Dexter, now a newswriter for CNN. And TV producer Judd Parkin (whose credits include the Emmy-nominated miniseries Jesus) recalls, "What I remember most about Mimi was her inherent sweetness and friendliness." People presume self-confidence in someone as beautiful as Mimi was, but she had the same anxieties about acceptance as any adolescent, perhaps intensified by her desirability.

Mimi could have done anything, but what she wanted was to become an actress. In the late 60s ETHS's drama department was nationally admired, and she took part in it. "She was a damn sweet kid, fun to work with, always so cheerful," says Ditton, who directed her in the title role of My Sister Eileen: a budding young actress for whom everything seems to come easily but who spends an inordinate amount of time fending off would-be suitors.

Her former teachers at ETHS remember her fondly but with some perplexity. "She was a whole lot more than just her red hair and pretty face," says Wallace Smith, now executive director of the Illinois Theatre Association. "I was surprised when she went into the B-movie business. It seemed to me she was better than that." Bruce Siewerth, who directed her in the school's annual YAMO revue, says, "I wasn't thinking, oh goody goody, she's gonna be famous. She had skills. She acquitted herself as well as any high school girl could. But I don't think she was aspiring to a serious theatrical career--she wasn't into the serious aspects of theater." And Louise Parkin, Judd's mother and Mimi's singing teacher, remembers, "She was receptive to anything I told her, but not, I would say, a serious student. She didn't have a lot of drive or discipline. I always had the feeling she wanted to do whatever she wanted without doing all the necessary hard work and homework."

Parkin's insights are echoed in Fast Life/Untimely Death, which says that in Hollywood Mimi signed up for classes with famed acting teacher Jeff Corey but dropped out when she got bored. Certainly her decision to become a Playboy model distressed her parents, who wanted her to go to college. "We felt she should have been in a good school studying acting," says Joan Chesterton. "She just wanted to have fun and be independent. I think she believed we were objecting to Playboy on the basis of morality. Our entire loathing of it was based on taste. We just thought it was tacky."

It was. Some of her ETHS friends were titillated, bemused, or appalled by the source of her overnight celebrity. Even guys who liked her couldn't resist jokes about "keeping abreast" of her career and her "talents" as an actress--even her name, Chesterton. "I asked her why she had posed for Playboy. I didn't get it, and she was defensive about it," says Lynn Kearney, now an executive with the Food Network and a New York cabaret singer. Another former classmate, Jim Parks, now an Evanston-based actor and HGTV host, remembers that when Mimi's first Playboy pictorial appeared "it was a bragging point when I had nothing else to brag about in my college dorm. I could say, 'See that? I was in a show with her. I kissed her on the lips.'" Ditton recalls that when she came back to ETHS for a visit, flushed with fame and resplendent in a pink Thunderbird and wearing a pink dress, he took her to visit a former teacher who had a surprise waiting for her. "We walked into his office, and he had her centerfold on his wall," says Ditton. "She nearly died."

"It may have been partly the political malaise of the time, but I thought of Mimi's professional ambitions as being unsuited to her--shallow and bald and grasping and dirty in almost anybody," says ex-boyfriend Jones. "I guess in a way she seemed like a daddy's girl, sold on the material values of the despised older generation. Someone who really did look pretty perfect wrapping her jeweled fingers around the back of Hefner's hair."

"She was a nice girl," recalls her senior-prom date Gil Hoel, now a family therapist living in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. "But she was obviously always looking for bigger and better things. When she transferred to ETHS, she seemed to quickly hook onto what was seen by her as a popular crowd. But as soon as school was over, she moved on abruptly. She broke up with me the night of prom. On the banks of Lake Michigan she said, 'This is it.' Within three months she was living downtown and working for Playboy." Mimi saw Playboy as a stepping-stone, but she also found it a glamorous, sexy way to rebel. And perhaps it was a way of saying to those adolescent lotharios who'd whistled at her in high school: "You want me? Here I am. But this is as close as you'll get."

As the 1970s waned, the Playmate image that had launched her career came to limit it. She guest-starred in a Brady Bunch episode called "Adios, Johnny Bravo," playing an agent grooming Greg Brady for stardom as a leather-jacketed teen idol. It was the series' highest-rated episode, due in part to Mimi's notorious image, but it didn't lead to much in the way of more TV work. The E! documentary reports that she auditioned to be Kate Jackson's replacement on Charlie's Angels and gave a terrific reading, but the network refused to use her because of her image.

I saw a film today oh boy...

One of the major interviewees on the E! documentary is a young man named Ari Bass. A film distributor and producer, Bass is also a journalist who has a fascination with the 1970s in general and Claudia Jennings in particular: he published an essay on her in Femme Fatales magazine (volume 9, number 2). "I was 12 years old when she died," Bass says. "I only became familiar with her later, when her movies came out on video. They're very good representations of the cinema of that era--when the drive-in was a major cultural thing, not only as a social outlet for audiences but as an alternate venue for artists.

"I think she was someone who didn't know herself and created an alternate personality--someone who could tear through men and be a powerful person, at least on-screen. She seemed to have a habit of falling for older men of some power and means who would not challenge her to find out who she really was. The only one who did was Bobby Hart, and she discarded him after five years."

In the Femme Fatales article, Bass notes that there were no drugs or alcohol in Mimi's system when she died. She was simply exhausted after a sleepless night worrying about her future and her breakup with Stan Herman, according to a girlfriend she'd called earlier that morning. He also quotes Hart as saying that part of the reason Mimi made repeat appearances in Playboy over the years was that "if she didn't let them shoot new shots, they would use the old stuff,"--presumably without paying her--an assertion that makes Hefner's platitudes about his friendship with Mimi even more grating.

When he was writing the Femme Fatales article, Bass contacted Joan Chesterton for an interview, but he says she declined. Yet if Bass has his way, the whole Claudia Jennings thing will hardly go away: the documentary may be just a warm-up for a resurgence of Claudia cultdom. "She was queen of the B movies," he says. "That meant something." Bass says he's writing a book on 70s starlets centered on Mimi, whose career spanned the whole decade.

It seems Bass, like documentary producer Smith, is sincere in his attempts to put Mimi's story into its cultural context. Of course, he's also out to capitalize on her memory. So is E!, whose video-sales Web site (www.eonline.com) traffics in Claudia Jennings's outre oeuvre, promoting the films with punchy little descriptions. Private School: "Young and lusty graduates of the exclusive college of carnal knowledge waste no time in beginning their new careers." Gator Bait: "When a clan of lusting backwoodsmen kill Desiree's sister and kidnap her brother, she turns pretty deadly herself." The Single Girls: "An idyllic island off California's coast becomes a killer's playground as a demented murderer stalks fun-loving singles." Truck Stop Women: "Truck stop honies smuggle (and snuggle) their way along the nation's highways."

If Mimi were alive today, she might get a kick out of becoming the subject of a retro revival. Still, it's probably not the legacy she would have wanted. Many of us learned about ourselves from the mistakes we made in our 20s and don't regret them. But few of us would want to be remembered for them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy or Ari Bass.

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment